Although some scholars have speculated that Shakespeare wrote portions of The Tempest at an earlier stage in his career, most literary historians assign the entire play a composition date of 1610 or 1611. And while Shakespeare may have had a hand in The Two Noble Kinsman (written a decade or so after The Tempest and assigned to dual authorship), The Tempest is customarily identified as the Bard's last stage piece. These marginal issues aside, The Tempest is the fourth, final, and the finest of Shakespeare's great and/or late romances. Along with Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, The Tempest belongs to the genre of Elizabethan romance plays. It combines elements of tragedy (Prospero's revenge) with those of romantic comedy (the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand), and like one of Shakespeare's problem plays, Measure for Measure, it poses deeper questions that are not completely resolved at the end. The romance genre is distinguished by the inclusion (and synthesis) of these tragic, comic, and problematical ingredients and further marked by a happy ending (usually concluding with a masque or dance) in which all, or most, of the characters are brought into harmony.
No reading of The Tempest can do it justice: Shakespeare's tale of Prospero's Island is inherently theatrical, unfolding in a series of spectacles that involve exotic, supra-human, and sometimes invisible characters that the audience can see but other characters cannot. The play was composed by Shakespeare as a multi-sensory theater experience, with sound, and especially music, used to complement the sights of the play, and all of it interwoven by the author with lyrical textual passages that overflow with exotic images, trifling sounds, and a palpable lushness.
The richness of The Tempest as theater is matched by the extraordinary thematic complexity of its text. Recognizing that all of the themes and accompanying figurative strands of the play cannot be discussed here, the play's topical highlights can still be approached by first noting the salience of two themes that arise from the very theatricality of the play: the opposition between reality and illusion and the tandem subject of the theater itself. The play challenges our senses and is self-consciously a performance orchestrated by Shakespeare's effigy in the master illusionist Prospero. There are, in addition, numerous interpenetrating polarities in the play, most notably between nature and civilization or Art. These thematic strands come together at multiple points of intersection. Nevertheless, from one angle on the text, The Tempest asks a single question, one that Shakespeare had posed in many and divers of his other plays: What is a human being? (or, in Elizabethan terms: What is man?)